Hal Duncan returns to Papaveria with another ferocious cantos, a handbound, limited and numbered edition in faux leather with red endbands, bloodred endpapers, sewn with black thread and printed on crisp, white paper. A miniature playing card has been set into the cover, framed with paper-covered board. The book measures 85mm wide by 110mm high (very small, but not really a miniature) and is 73 pages of poetry that will take your breath away. 26 copies were bound, of which 24 were available for sale. This title is now sold out.
“A tick of clock, a click, a drop of pin.
The subtle hiss of gramophone begins.
The green glass lamp flicks on. Doors softly shut.
Death shuffles cards and nods for me to cut.”
Hal Duncan is perhaps best known for his Vellum: The Book of All Hours 1 and Ink: The Book of All Hours 2 and for the writing he does on his fascinating blog, Notes from the Geek Show. Take a look at his bibliography and you’ll find a stream of short stories, the two novels mentioned above and a stand-alone novella, Escape From Hell!. The poetry section by comparison seems lacking. The two poems with publication credits have both been released by Papaveria (the first being Sonnets for Orpheus in 2006). While all seven of the listed poems are available to read online, I find this dearth curious because as far as I’m concerned, Hal’s poetry is some of the most amazing work I’ve ever read. I wondered as well, as you do, about the poetry itself. Not content with wild musings about these matters, I decided to ask the man himself. To say I was delighted by his response would be an understatement.
Papaveria: I want to know about what inspires your poetry, but I don’t want to ask what is, in essence, that same old trite question. But something must move you to write it, so what is it?
Hal: I’m sorely tempted to say, “the gods”. That sounds completely arsey, and it’s sort of cracked coming from a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but if I could talk about it in a less figurative way I probably wouldn’t be writing the poetry at all, or at least not this *type* of poetry. I mean, I’m irreligious, so when I write about Lucifer or Dionysus, I’m writing as an existentialist, not a Satanist or Neo-Pagan. But at the same time, these figurae seem more than mere archetypes to me; it’s not just some Jungian psychodrama, spawned from the unconscious. It’s more like there’s these grand forces, abstract and ancient, carving their own paths through reality, every aspect of it — life, death, love, lust. Even the archetypes of Self or Ego, Anima or Shadow, are only masks. When I write about Death… I don’t know. It’s not like I buy into the personifying conceit, but it’s *not* just some extended metaphor or allegory; in some weird way, I genuinely (possibly insanely) feel like I’m standing up for… an old god slandered by the upstart pretender(s) of modern religion.
Put it this way: I read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism a while back, and in it Frye lays out a theory of modes that poetry cycles through historically. There’s mythic at first, then romance, high mimetic and low mimetic, and finally ironic, at the end of which we see a return to the mythic. I’m not wholly convinced by the grand narrative there, but the way he talks of the re-emergence of the mythic out of the ironic really clicked with me. His schema applies in prose as well as poetry, so we’re talking about writers like Rilke and Rimbaud, Yeats and Joyce, Nietzsche and so on. The writing is characteristically oracular, distinctly lyrical, with the poet often presenting themself as nigh-on a prophet. And I completely recognise that in my own poetry.
The point is, it’s seldom just day-to-day life. You can see traces of mimetic and ironic modes, but the mundane is generally rendered with mystery rather than maundering. That sort of free verse poem about, I don’t know, seeing a dead bird in the gutter on your way to work, blah blah blah — that just bores the fuck out of me. The representation and reflection just seems… lacking in *enthusiasm* — in its original sense meaning literally “having the god within.” There *is* this weird sense of the divine that permeates my work, I know. A sense of the profane as sacred, the material as spiritual. That’s the best I can explain it.
Papaveria: Your poems seem almost feral in their intensity. Do they come from a different place than your prose?
Hal: They come from the same place, I think; they’re just… unleashed. What I think it is? In prose, in a short story or novel, if you write from a single focused thematic perspective, an uncompromising personal *attitude*, then the narrative is liable to collapse into a moralising parable, preachy and polemical. When you realise the author is basically being a didactic motherfucker in fiction, it smacks of dishonesty, an attempt to slip a message under the reader’s radar, agitprop in the guise of a story — because that author is sort of a puppet master, behind the scenes. But in verse, the poet is foregrounded, a performer out on stage, often speaking straight to their audience. The attitude is expected. The audience is *there* to see the poet take their stance, tell them, here’s how I see it, motherfuckers. So where in fiction I’d be constantly playing the perspectives of different characters off of one another, trying my damnedest to do each of them justice, and thereby hoping to *avoid* sermonising, with the poetry it’s all about the direct confrontation. It’s an unreservedly personal engagement, as personal as fighting or fucking.
Hence the cliché of the poet as posturing and self-important, hand nailed to forehead; that’s the risk in something so essentially performative, making it all very *look at me*. I think my own tendency towards — yeah, *feral intensity* is a good way of putting it — is partly an attempt to abjure that self-serving bollocks. Like, if I write about my brother’s death, about the conflict of religion and sexuality, about things that I’m truly fucking passionate about, these are too important for me to just… flap my gums on the matter with some trite ruminative angst. I know I have to aim for ruthless honesty, applied to my own expedient self-delusions as much as anything, to the best of my ability. If I’m tackling what I see as unconscionable bullshit that deserves to be fucking *flayed*, well, if it matters that much, I’ve got no choice but to go after the posturing wank that’s going to inevitably creep in from my own surrender to platitudes, or I won’t be doing it justice. So, yes, that leads to a pretty combative attitude.
Papaveria: Do you choose your subject matter or does it choose you?
Hal: We just cross each other’s paths. Actually, with much of it, we’ve been crossing each other’s paths for as long as I can remember. I mean, I don’t tend to sit down and think, OK, today I’m going to address X, Y or Z, but then neither does it seem to come out of the blue, in a thunderbolt of inspiration. Rather, in the course of my teenage years I ran smack-dab into a death in the family and a discovery of sexuality that made it pretty hard to ignore those two big subjects. The one is something you never really get over, and the other is something that stays with you for life. And both make me intensely aware of and hostile to those aspects of daily life, of psychology, politics and religion, which demean them or try to sweep them under the carpet. At one level, I think I’m always addressing the same broad subject matter; it’s just the figurative focus that changes from work to work. And all of that… it’s partly the stuff that comes crashing into your life — like a war in Iraq — partly the stuff you’re actively interested in — like Greek mythology.
I mean, do you choose who you engage with at a party or do they choose you? Sometimes it might be one way, sometimes the other, but most often it seems to me it’s just that you end up, in the general mill, moving into each other’s sphere; and your actions are of sufficient import to each other that you get drawn into a conversation. That’s how it feels with much of what I write — that the situation is such it’s only logical for us to end up bumping heads. Religion is the perennial boorish prick at that party for example, an obnoxious pontificating fucktard who’ll stand in the centre of the room spewing vitriol about gay marriage; of course, I’m going to end up in his face.
Papaveria: Is there anything new (novels, short stories, poems) coming that we should know about?
Hal: Sadly, no. There are irons in the fire, as they say, but apart from a short story waiting to be published by Strange Horizons, there’s nothing I can point you to as coming out in the immediate future. It’s all crazy up-in-the-air stuff… like the screenplay for a gay retelling of As You Like It as a high school movie, which… well, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it being picked up, let alone made. Or there’s a project where the contract hasn’t been signed yet, so I can’t really talk about it.
Thank you, Hal, for everything.